CALAIS _There were lots of cheers and plenty of tears at the 44th Commencement Exercises Friday at the Washington County Community College.
The ceremony was held in the gymnasium at Calais High School.
Some of the cheers and tears were for Business Studies Instructor Rhonda French, who had been elected by the students to give the Distinguished Faculty Member Address.
French spoke about her own personal struggles and life twists and turns that included, a husband who was injured on the job and near financial ruin for her family; that same young woman, determined to provide for her husband and two daughters, returned to college, graduated and became a successful teacher
Her message to the graduates was that you can rise above your obstacles and you can achieve your dreams. “You can’t change the past, but you can affect your future. It takes hard work, discipline, determination and the realization that you can do it. Believe in yourself Class of 2013, we believe in you,” she said to cheers and a standing ovation from students, staff, family and friends.
Then it was time for the Student Address. Student Senate President Christine Phillips, who can best be described as a role model for non-traditional students, reminded the students that they were the definition of success.
She too had a story to tell about dropping out of school in the ninth grade and struggling. “I had a lot of personal issues in my life and I absolutely felt a lot of bullying in school. I wanted to do well in school, but it just wasn’t a place where I wanted to be at all,” she said.
She dropped out, but later received her General Equivalency Diploma at age 17. She did not return to school, but instead she had two children and built a very successful career in sales. Then the economy flopped and she and her family lost everything.
“As that point I felt like I’d hit rock bottom,” she said. She moved her family from Michigan to Calais, her partner’s hometown, and decided to return to college. She enrolled at WCCC and found success. She was elected president of the Student Senate, inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and selected as Student of the Year for 2013.
“I learned that true happiness in life does not come from working to make a lot of money and having material things, but it comes from loving what you do, appreciating the people in your life and donating your time in some way that makes a difference in other peoples’ lives,” she said.
This year’s Commencement Address was given by Major Gen. Peter T. Berry, U.S. Army retired. In his introduction, WCCC President and President Emeritus Bill Cassidy captured the essence of the man. “This is a man who gave much to his nation, who served us all, who was fortunate to be born and brought up in Calais and ladies and gentlemen who never forgot from whence he came,” he said.
The general’s many decorations and badges include the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters; the Parachutist Badge; Ranger Tab and the Army General Staff Identification Badge.
Berry began by congratulating the graduates and then talked about his hero, Winston Churchill. “Winston Churchill said that in education the most important thing is appetite. You have demonstrated an appetite and as Mrs. French indicated don’t ever lose it, because you still learn,” he said.
Turning to a more personal theme, he exhorted the graduates to not just work at a job, but to do a job well regardless if they liked it or not. He said that success in a job meant showing up with a positive attitude and in return that job would be a success. “Be positive and tough enough to show up,” he urged students.
Berry also encouraged the graduates to include financial security in their life plan. He said he understood with all of life’s demands that saving for the future was often delayed, but he said saving now would mean a better life later on. “Pay yourself first and you will be amazed by it all,” he said.
During his speech, Berry used humor and homespun philosophy to remind the graduates that “life goes on, life batters you, life can be tough, but life happens.”
Then it was time for the graduates to take the stage and accept their diplomas. Among the more than 150 students that WCCC President Bill Cassidy presented with diplomas were: Raymond Scanlon of Machias and Rebecca McGinnis, of Newport, who received their certificates in Automotive Technology.
Also among the graduates was Tina Moholland, who received her Associate Degree in Applied Science. Her aunt Gail Moholland is director of WCCC’s TRIO program. Gail went on stage to give her niece a big hug after she was handed her diploma. Some of the other graduates included: Brooke Ashley Stanley, the only female graduate in the Heavy Equipment Operations program and Robert E. Porter, the only male graduate in the Medical Assisting program.
Then it was time for the recessional. The students and staff were piped out by Ernie Small of Bucksport wearing his red kilts and playing the bagpipe.